A former top EPA political aide has divulged to Democratic lawmakers examples of exorbitant spending and misuse of Cabinet-level power by Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Kevin Chmielewski, once EPA’s deputy chief of staff for operations, met with staff for House and Senate Democrats to discuss what he saw during his time at the agency under Pruitt’s leadership. What he told them is laid out in a six-page letter sent to the EPA chief today, corroborating reports of "wasteful spending of taxpayer funds and [Pruitt’s] disregard for the ethical and legal requirements of your position."
The Democratic lawmakers — Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island as well as Reps. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Gerry Connolly and Don Beyer of Virginia — said Chmielewski told them he was handed "a nightmare" when he arrived at EPA.
"Mr. Chmielewski claims that when he first started in his role as a politically appointed Senior Executive Service official at EPA, Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson informed him that ‘the nightmare is now yours.’ Mr. Chmielewski said those words turned out to be accurate," the Democrats wrote.
Chmielewski, in his role at EPA, helped oversee and manage Pruitt’s office and travel expenses along with other aides at the agency. When he refused to approve excessive spending, Chmielewski claimed "he was marginalized, removed from his senior position and placed on administrative leave," according to the letter.
Some allegations contained in the letter have been previously reported elsewhere, but others are new or add more detail on what Pruitt wanted to expend EPA resources on.
The former top EPA aide detailed "wasteful security spending" that includes bulletproof vests and weapons, biometric locks, new SUVs and a $30,000 contract with private Italian security guards. Pruitt also exceeded the $5,000 cap in redecorating his office by refinishing an antique desk, buying a standing desk, leasing art from the Smithsonian Institution, framing a U.S. flag and installing a secure phone booth for nearly $43,000, according to Chmielewski.
He also described for lawmakers attempts by EPA to enter a $100,000-per-month contract with a private jet company. Chmielewski also said Pruitt asked his staff to find reasons to return home to Oklahoma as well as the EPA chief picking travel destinations based on where he wanted to go rather than official business. "Find me something to do [in those locations]," Pruitt reportedly told staff.
Pruitt also allegedly wanted his staff to book him flights on Delta — at times not the government’s contract carrier for where he was flying — in order to rack up frequent flyer miles and stayed in hotels that exceeded government per diem limits.
The Democrats’ letter also described intense staff infighting as recounted by Chmielewski. Aides bickered over first-class travel and other uses of taxpayer money with those being sidelined who questioned the administrator’s spending requests, including Jackson.
In their letter, the lawmakers have asked for 19 different sets of documents from EPA, including records related to Pruitt’s redecoration costs, pay raises for aides, security, travel and decisions related to firing or reassigning those who raised concerns about the administrator’s spending. They gave the agency a deadline of April 25 to respond.
"We will respond to Members of Congress through the proper channel," EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said when asked for comment on the letter.
In the past, Wilcox has described Chmielewski and EPA career officials who have been moved on after objecting to spending proposals as "disgruntled employees" (Greenwire, April 6).
The lawmakers also sent a letter to President Trump, including the list of allegations against Pruitt.
"We believe that if you speak with knowledgeable parties like Mr. Chmielewski and examine relevant documents, it will become clear that the right course of action in this case is to hold Administrator Pruitt accountable for his serious ethical lapses and to restore honest, competent leadership to EPA so that this important agency may fulfill its critical mission," the lawmakers said.
White House press officials didn’t respond to a request for comment from E&E News for this story.
The White House has been conducting its own review of Pruitt after news broke two weeks ago that the EPA chief had stayed in a Capitol Hill condo linked to a lobbyist whose firm’s clients have business interests before the agency. More Democrats have come forward to call on the EPA chief to step down and are working on a "sense of Congress" resolution in both chambers requesting that Pruitt resign.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have urged the president to defend Pruitt. Trump so far has. In a Saturday night tweet, the president downplayed many of the scandals surrounding the administrator.
"Scott is doing a great job!" Trump said.
Some Republicans, however, have begun to dig into the various ethics allegations against Pruitt. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) sent a letter to EPA yesterday asking for documents related to Pruitt’s condo lease as well as missing travel records (E&E News PM, April 11).
Pruitt’s troubles haven’t sunk Andrew Wheeler, Trump’s nominee for deputy EPA administrator who if confirmed would fill in for Pruitt upon his resignation or firing. This morning, the Senate voted 53-45 to end debate on Wheeler’s nomination, although it’s unclear when he will receive a final vote (see related story).
Reporter Geof Koss contributed.